Many scholars would agree without difficulty on the abstract characteristics of an ideal society of orders. But they would debate other questions more fiercely. Did any actual society bear a close relation to the stark outlines of this model or pattern? Does the simple notion of a society of orders throw light on the historical reality, or does it merely distort and obfuscate it? A society of orders is generally conceived as one which is hierarchically arranged, consisting of large social groupings which are charged with performing quite different functions for the benefit of society and the body politic, and hence are treated in distinctive ways by the law, the fisc and the representative system. The upper orders – usually identified as the nobility and the clergy – are not (at least not primarily) social classes, because their social position does not derive principally from their material wealth, their roles in the production of material goods, or their shared life-chances. Rather, it springs from the value attributed by some kind of social consensus (how this arises is seldom clear) to the duties they perform – by praying for the common weal, by administering the sacraments, by fighting for king and country, by dispensing justice. It would be foolish to suppose that their status has nothing to do with their material possessions or with the rents and dues they derive from their property, but it is possible to argue that these things are secondary to the functions which they carry out, for which their wealth merely provides support.
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